Zemba Luzamba on how the unbanning of suits in the Congo awoke the artist in him

Intrigued by what people show on the surface, Zemba Luzamba plays with images and ideas, what he sees and what’s really going on, pulling all that together with oil paint on his canvas surfaces.

You were born in Lubumbashi in the Congo, were educated in Zambia, and moved to South Africa with your family in 2000 due to civil war in the DRC. You’ve lived a diverse life in Africa, how does that influence your art making?

There is a bit of politics in my work, but I play with that, so it’s not too serious. If you look at my paintings, you’ll see I’ve been playing with elegance and lifestyle, with some reference to politics and social commentary. In the Congo there’s a trend for some of the guys, known as Sapeurs, to pretend they’re more affluent than they are by following a culture of elegance in the way they dress. It’s surface-level personal image management, and also an aspirational expression. In Congolese society there are certain things that we never actually talk about – big issues kept beneath a surface façade. So I went with that flow, and a sense of only what can be seen on the surface has influenced some of the works that I’ve been doing lately. My imagery also includes stuff that is happening in politics in South Africa. I don’t speak too loud, but quietly in my way. Not all my works are about showing political movements, though; some are just trying to point out the politics of the lives that we live in.

The Entourage, 2015. Oil on canvas. 150cm x 100cm
The Entourage, 2015. Oil on canvas. 150cm x 100cm
Red Carpet, 2015. Oil on canvas. 100cm x 150cm
Red Carpet, 2015. Oil on canvas. 100cm x 150cm

Is there a noteworthy time or place in Africa that inspires your art making?

Yes, when Mabuto was dictator of the Congo, he wore a type of shirt called an Abacos and banned anybody from wearing a suit or tie as part of his aim to erase all traces of Belgian colonization. When Mabuto stopped his dictatorship and let ‘democracy’ come into the Congo, our fathers and grandfathers went straight to their suitcases and brought out the clothes they used to dress in before independence. I had grown up in a country where I’d never seen anybody in a suit or tie. Overnight, all the fathers and grandfathers suddenly started dressing in suits and ties. I was young, and it totally amazed me then, and it still amazes me now. The artist in me awoke in that moment, and since then I’ve been playing with images and ideas, combining what I see with what’s going on and trying to pull them together with oil paint on the surface of a canvas.

What mediums do you use?

I only use oil paint – it’s my passion. I used to use acrylics, but I stopped enjoying it – the paint dried too quickly and it felt like the paint was dictating the work. With oil paint I command, and it follows. What I love about oils is that I can make changes on a canvas with ease, and play with the paint for a good length of time before it dries. Sometimes I’ll work on one piece for months, and if I feel like changing it, I know the oil paint will relate and connect to the work.

If you could travel anywhere to fuel your artistic inspiration, where would you go?

Venice – the way that people who have been there talk about the houses on the side of the canals makes me want to see and experience them. And Venice is one of the world’s top art-world destinations, so as an artist my wish is to be part of that there one day.

Sapologie, 2015. Oil on canvas. 90cm x 120cm
Sapologie, 2015. Oil on canvas. 90cm x 120cm
Two Heads (Generation Kitoko), 2015. Oil on canvas. 70cm x 92cm
Two Heads (Generation Kitoko), 2015. Oil on canvas. 70cm x 92cm
Whistle blower, 2015. Oil on canvas. 90cm x 120cm
Whistle blower, 2015. Oil on canvas. 90cm x 120cm
Untitled. Oil on canvas. Nando’s Art collection
Untitled. Oil on canvas. Nando’s Art collection
Once Upon A Time (chess activities). Oil on canvas. Nando’s Art collection
Once Upon A Time (chess activities). Oil on canvas. Nando’s Art collection

Zemba Luzamba lives with his wife and young family in Cape Town, where he works from a desk-studio in their lounge. His most recent exhibition It is what it is showed in October 2015 at EBONY/curated and he is currently busy working on an exhibition, planned for the end of 2016.

Zemba has exhibited internationally, and his artworks feature in several notable public collections. Zemba’s work is on permanent public exhibition in Nando’s UK and Nando’s South Africa, and he is involved in the art programmes that Nando’s supports, including Nando’s Chicken Run, and Yellowwood Arts Creative Block programme.

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